I was amused to read a number of West Ham supporters on social media urging David Moyes to abandoned his cautious tendencies and “have a go” at Manchester City in today’s early kick-off at the Etihad Stadium. Now I’m not saying I know exactly what they mean by having a go but if it involves taking the game to the opposition then it would be a reckless recipe for disaster – potentially straying into Ralph Hasenhüttl territory.
There is a danger that we are getting ahead of ourselves here. Moyes understands the strengths and weaknesses of his squad and the Hammers current position in the Premier League reflects that pragmatism. It is based on hard work, organisation and energy – a solid defensive shape supported by rapid counter-attacking and strength at set pieces. It works fine for me and have found myself delighted with the application and team spirit that has been demonstrated this season.
In an ideal world I would love the team to be more expansive, but that’s not where we are. We need to evolve to dominate games against the lesser sides before believing we can do it against the elite. In a game of opinions I can accept that others will see it differently, but this is not a negatively minded West Ham side in my view. It is one playing to their current strengths and acknowledging their limitations.
Much of the case for the prosecution about Moyes cautious outlook goes back to the Liverpool game. Admittedly it was not the Hammers finest recent performance, but Liverpool managed to conjure up their title winning form that day – although, ironically, they have lost all four Premier League games since then. Two weeks after beating West Ham, I sat through their visit to Leicester. Watching the game and looking at the stats afterwards, the games were almost carbon copy of each other, apart from the final score. Liverpool bossed possession 68% – 32% on both occasions, took the lead through Salah midway through the second half and were comfortably controlling the games. West Ham and Leicester completed an identical number of passes and although The Foxes had three more attempts at goal, the Hammers won four more corners and recorded a better passing accuracy. It all unravelled, though, in the final ten minutes at Leicester; the hosts equalised from a free kick and Liverpool (particularly their goalkeeper) simply went to pieces. Such are the fine margins of football which separate Rodgers’ ‘tactical genius’ from Moyes’ ‘lack of ambition’.
Of course, stats can disguise and distract us from nature and nuances of games – none more so than the possession statistic, which is pointless if you don’t make good use of it. I think most Hammers would like to see the team retain the ball retention better and that it remains an area for improvement. Moyes said as much after last week’s win against Tottenham. As I see it, it is a combination of poor individual decision making and not committing enough people forward when possession is won.
Any win over the north London neighbours is warmly appreciated and one that cemented fourth place as well as opening up a nine-point gap over our rivals was particularly sweet. We started well (did we score too-soon?) but seemed to lose momentum with the injury to Tomas Soucek – super Tom demonstrating a level of courage rarely seen in the modern game.
At last, VAR did what it is supposed to be there for by spotting the clear and obvious howler of the linesman’s flag, even if it took an age to do so. Did they rewind back to the half time whistle in the search for an infringement? So many goals have to be celebrated twice nowadays, and the impromptu band performance was a moment to savour. The final twenty minutes or so was squeaky bottom viewing and not good for the blood pressure. I’m sure there were many like me yelling at the TV as we kept giving the ball back to the visitors and asking them to try again. Resolute defending and good fortune eventually combined to save the day.
An Opta projected final league table in the week (apparently based on running thousands of simulations) showed West Ham finishing in 7th place on 61 points – we had fallen below Chelsea, Liverpool and Tottenham in their findings. To be honest, I would be a shade disappointed if we finish outside the top six now, despite starting the season hoping for anything better than 17th. I’ll admit to being one of those who were predicting nul points by the end of October. It is said we have a tough run-in, but in fact the remaining fixtures work out as six from the top ten and seven from the bottom ten. I remain hopeful.
Playing each of the top three in the next six games does constitute a tough run, however. And none come tougher than away to Manchester City, who after a sluggish start have become an irresistible force – will West Ham represent the immovable object? . Guardiola has hit upon a plan B that has reined in their former free scoring flamboyance, but tightened up the vulnerable defence significantly. He is an exceptional manager, but one with the luxury of the world’s most expensively assembled (by some distance) squad at his disposal. A squad that includes eleven players costing more than £40 million. Buy a pair of expensive duds at City and it is written off as an accounting error. Do so at West Ham and it stymies the club for years to come.
The only sensible approach today is to constrain and frustrate City, much as West Ham did at the London Stadium back in October, a game that might have been won had the clear and obvious penalty (for a foul on Michail Antonio) been awarded. City are a different proposition these days and it will be a tall order to maintain concentration and resist the relentless City probing throughout ninety minutes. Not going out all guns blazing isn’t the same as not trying to win. On the rare occasions that City have lost at home in the league in the past few seasons it has been the result of a smash and grab mugging. That is the Hammers task today.
On the balance of probabilities West Ham will lose this game nine times out of ten (if not more often) due to the inequality of resources. It is not a game that will define the rest of the season but a moral sapping heavy defeat from a gung-ho approach could do.
It would be a massive achievement to be the side that manages to put a stop to the Manchester City juggernaut. It is implausible to predict a victory but maybe, just maybe, the Hammers can plunder an unlikely draw. As Pep might say (if he were Portuguese) “Se a vida é” – That’s the Way Life Is. COYI!